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Why aren’t more climate activists vegan?

This week I decided to go vegan. The decision came after many years of being a (sometimes meat-eating) vegetarian, or a (sometimes vegetarian) meat-eater.

There are many reasons behind my decision. I recently read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, “Eating Animals”, which I picked up almost by accident. Having read it, I can’t justify eating animals on moral grounds, given the current way animals are farmed.

Then there’s the impact of cattle ranching on the Amazon, with vast areas of forest destroyed. And the deforestation caused by soy plantations, grown to provide animal feed.

And then there’s impact of livestock on the climate. In 2014, Professor Tim Benton, at the University of Leeds, told the Guardian,

“The biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat.”

I do try to reduce my carbon footprint. I cycle or take public transport most of the time. I don’t own a car. I’ve taken one short-haul flight in the last two years. I buy organic vegetables.

And every now and then, I hand over money to one of the most unpleasant, polluting and environmentally disastrous industries on the planet: the meat industry. Until Monday, I poured milk on my cornflakes every morning.

Last year Peter Scarborough and colleagues from the University of Oxford collected data on the real diets of more than 50,000 people in UK, including vegans, vegetarians, fish-eaters and meat-eaters. They analysed the greenhouse gas emissions associated with each diet.

In a paper published in Climate Change, they reported that an average high meat diet has 2.5 times as many greenhouse gas emissions than an average vegan diet. Over a year, the saving in emissions is the equivalent of 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

What proportion of greenhouse gas emissions comes from the livestock sector?

In 2006, the FAO produced a report on the climate impacts of livestock. Titled “Livestock’s long shadow”, the report estimated that the livestock sector accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Seven years later, the FAO produced another report, “Tackling climate change through livestock”. This time, FAO reports that the livestock sector represents 14.5% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

On its website, the FAO states that “The two figures cannot be accurately compared, as reference periods and sources differ”. FAO experts told The Guardian that the new figure was based on “a revised modelling framework and updated data, using new guidelines from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change”.

In a 2009 article for World Watch magazine, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang estimate that livestock accounts for 51% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Predictably, on its website PETA uses the 51% figure.

Regardless of the exact figure it’s safe to say, as the FAO does in its 2013 report, that “the livestock sector plays an important role in climate change”.

Reduce emissions from livestock, or reduce meat and dairy consumption?

The FAO argues that a 30% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is possible in the lifestock sector by a range of methods, including increasing efficiency, improving manure management practices, sequestering carbon in grassland, and sourcing low emission intensity inputs.

The FAO notes the need for collective, concerted and global action:

Recent years have seen interesting and promising initiatives by both the public and private sectors to address sustainability issues. Complementary multistakeholder action is required to design and implement cost-effective and equitable mitigation strategies, and to set up the necessary supporting policy and institutional frameworks.

But neither the word “vegetarian” nor the word “vegan” appear anywhere in the FAO’s 139-page long report. (Neither does the word “cruelty” make an appearance, although “welfare” appears four times.) Instead, the FAO argues that world population will increase to 9.6 billion by 2050 and that,

Driven by strong demand from an emerging global middle class, diets will become richer and increasingly diversified, and growth in animal-source foods will be particularly strong; the demand for meat and milk in 2050 is projected to grow by 73 and 58 percent, respectively, from their levels in 2010.

As well as working to reduce emissions from the meat and dairy industry, wouldn’t it make sense to reduce consumption of meat? That’s what a 2010 UNEP report suggested:

A substantial reduction of impacts [from agriculture] would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.

Of course, I’m not arguing for reductions in emissions from livestock so that we can continue to burn fossil fuels. To address climate change we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, as well as reducing emissions from cow farts (and deforestation).

Dietary change is essential

Last year, Chatham House published a report looking at global public opinion on meat and dairy consumption. The report points out that “consumption of meat and dairy produce is a major driver of climate change”, and that “shifting global demand for meat and dairy produce is central to achieving climate goals”.

The problem, as Rob Bailey, the report’s lead author, told the Guardian, is that,

“A lot is being done on deforestation and transport, but there is a huge gap on the livestock sector. There is a deep reluctance to engage because of the received wisdom that it is not the place of governments or civil society to intrude into people’s lives and tell them what to eat.”

Which is a good point. In September 2013, the German Green politician Renate Künast proposed the idea of one day a week vegetarian food in canteens. It became one of the most debated proposals from any party during the German election campaign, getting as much airtime as Syria and the eurozone combined.

The Greens were accused of pushing for an “ecological dictatorship”. Rainer Brüderle, from the Free Democrats Party (FDP), then-junior coalition partners, said:

“People are smart enough to decide on their own when they eat meat and vegetables and when they don’t. Constantly telling people what they do is not my understanding of freedom and liberty.”

But in its report, Chatham House argues that “dietary change is essential if global warming is not to exceed two degrees Celsius”.

So how should climate activists communicate the importance of eating less meat? How come more people who are concerned about climate change aren’t vegan?

And, come to think of it, what took me so long?
 

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18 Comments

  1. Most eco warriors have no idea on what they are trying to do or save.
    Greenpeace/seashepard etc drive around in boats that use up to 8 tons ( just short of 10,000 liters ) a day saving the planet. They all own a Labrador dog that has an environmental footprint of between 2-3 Land-cruisers, do not insist on paying the full rate for renewable energy in their offices and actually think that hybrid cars are more eco friendly than petrol ones.

  2. Good one Chris.Good move on yr part. Also agree with Paul. Most activists have no clue beyond spouting popular slogans

  3. Thanks so much, Chris Laing, for this most thoughtful and insightful assessment. Yes, it makes imminent sense to focus on this ‘diet/climate’ nexus since it a key ‘wedge’ to win on if we are to have a chance of limiting climate change to within 2 degree C. When we factor in the dramatic health benefits of weaning ourselves from a meat/dairy-based diet, the case is even stronger. The fact that we have all been exposed most of our lives to concerted misinformation campaigns about the need and value of animal protein does not let us off the hook. Climate activists, in particular, need to join you in educating ourselves and educating others about this all-important intervention in climate change … transitioning to plant-based diets.

  4. Congratulations
    I turned veggie at 17 and Vegan at 22 when my son was born. The idea of feeding him milk from a mammal that grows to adulthood in 1 year was preposterous, as was the cruelty obvious in animal farming. Fine hundreds of years ago if you were starving but now we don’t need meat and its use is more likely to get everyone starving. Now my son’s coming up 40, near Vegan as are my other 2 children.

  5. I’m so glad you brought up this topic Chris ::! Thank you because it is something most so-called environmentalists have been ignoring for too long…so let’s continue educating them, until we realize how powerful this change in diet could be for climate change mitigation…

    Another interesting article going in the same direction: http://www.onegreenplanet.org/lifestyle/eco-eating-going-green-begins-with-whats-on-your-plate/
    “reducing or eliminating the consumption of animal products is one of the most powerful ways we can reduce our impact on the environment. A plant-based diet is by far the most ecological dietary choice we can make.”

    A recent study by 2 environmental-risk specialists employed by the World Bank and International Finance Corporation has just been released in Nature: http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v3/n1/full/nclimate1755.html
    It shows that livestock products account for at least 51% of anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions. Hence their policy recommendation:
    ” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have both warned that the next five years may be the last real chance to reverse climate change before it’s too late. We say that the only pragmatic way to do so is to replace at least 25% of today’s livestock products with better alternatives — this would both eliminate much more than 4% of agricultural emissions, and allow reforestation and forest regeneration on vast amounts of land, which could then absorb enough atmospheric carbon to reduce it to a safe level.”

    So, bottomline, let’s try to reduce our consumption of livestock products and replace them with better alternatives ! And even reverse the business-as-usual scenario, switching from meat-based to plant-based meals served at public and corporate restaurants.

    We can get inspired by those initiatives:
    http://www.meatfreemondays.com
    http://www.chompingclimatechange.org/

  6. Goodland and Anhang’s “estimate” of 51 percent of emissions hinges on some severe distortions including:

    1. Contrary to IPCC guidelines, treating animal respiration as net emissions, without subtracting CO2 sinks due to photosynthesis of pastures and feed crops. The estimate of respiration is also grossly inflated.

    2. Recalculating methane emissions using the 20-year global warming potential (GWP) instead of the lower 100-year GWP, but only for anthropogenic methane emissions attributed to livestock.

    3. Adjusting emissions for an increase in the tonnage of livestock products that occurred between 2002 and 2009. However, since their base emission figures are for the year 2000, this is only appropriate if they also adjust for increases in emissions over the same period from other sources (i.e. fossil fuels).

    4. Repeatedly conflating estimates of the population of animals alive at a point in time with estimates of the number of animals slaughtered in a year.

    Additional details are available here: https://oncejolly.wordpress.com/an-analysis-of-livestock-and-climate-change/

  7. @Oncejolly – Thanks for this comment. I referred to the two FAO reports (2006 and 2013), as well as the Goodland and Anhang article in World Watch magazine. Would you agree with the following (from the post above):

    Regardless of the exact figure it’s safe to say, as the FAO does in its 2013 report, that “the livestock sector plays an important role in climate change”.

  8. @Chris Lang – I agree with the general premise that livestock products are emission intensive relative to plant-based alternatives. There is an extensive literature that establishes this. The share of annual net emissions is also not the same as mitigation potential, but I think others do a much better job of making this point than the incoherent analysis by Goodland and Anhang. The best-known work that I’m aware of is by Elke Stehfest and co-authors, which explicitly considers scenarios involving various dietary changes and the carbon sinks that might be realized by allowing pasture and cropland revert to natural vegetation: https://foodethics.univie.ac.at/fileadmin/user_upload/p_foodethik/Stehfest__E._Netherlands_Enviro_Ass._Agency_2009._Climate_and_diet.pdf

  9. I’m a vegan because I refuse to sponsor an industry that profits from animal suffering. I’ve learned about the huge environmental impact of eating animal products, namely in terms of water consumption and biodiversity loss, after transitioning to a plant-based diet, but I think that this would also be a strong enough reason for me to boycott animal products.
    That being said, I’m not sure about the solidity of the climate change argument against meat consumption, for two reasons. First, the estimates about the livestock’s contribution to climate change rely on contestable calculations that involve equivalences between fossil fuel burning and land use activities and using the 100-year GWP as a commensurator to convert methane to CO2, calculations that can and should be contested from a social and scientific point of view. Second, it relies mostly on the impact of cow farts, a problem that has an easy solution when methane can be captured and burned at a profit in factory farms (there are also pills being developed to stop cows from farting and we might in the future see “fart offsets” being sold, which is funny and worrying at the same time).
    My worry is that many animal rights organizations jumped in the bandwagon and are saying that solving climate change is about going vegan when in reality dropping fossil fuel use is much more important.
    I think that the animal rights case for veganism is rock solid and so is the environmental case, given that nutricional science has already established that animal products are an optional, not an essential, component of a balanced diet. The climate change case is less solid and, in my view, should be used in conjunction with other arguments, even if we can legitimately ask a climate activist why does (s)he refuse to board a flight and yet resists the idea of giving up CO2-intensive meat and dairy.

  10. OnceJolly is an anti Worldwatch troll. Their same points are spammed over the net, have received robust reponses and are ignored

  11. I think the word we are all looking for when trying to save the planet is ‘don’t be so lazy’. The average household in the UK leaves about 12 items on standby for a minimum of 20 hrs a day when they are not being used. This uses about 83 Watt or about 600 Kw per year or for just the UK about 16,500 Megawatt per year. All it needs is to get off the sofa, go to the wall and turn the switch off.

  12. The next step is realizing how cattle ranching and its products are not only responsible for the afformentioned cruelty, health epidemics, deforestation and climate impacts but are the basis for our whole culture and its destructive impact on not only wildlife and flora but humans as well. To keep a long story short the supremacist attitude of man over animals is not only limited to these animals but also to nature and our fellow people. The word capitalism is derived from owning cattle heads. Few people realize the connection between cattle ranching and people ranching. Cattle ranching in itself is unsustainable because it is a short term gain for long term loss game resulting in a pattern of desertification worldwide. A manmade pasture is an ecological disaster because it’s not a complete ecosystem. This game is not limited to the natural world but also to our social world leading to a tendency to generate short term solutions making our demise as a species and the ecology with its enormous diversity almost inevitable. Our nutrient intake is also focused on the consumption of quick profit products like grains, annual vegetables, dairy and meat. All this is sustained by deforestation worldwide. The only viable solution is switching to a vegan diet based on trees. Trees can provide a host of products and services in a sustainable way outproducing annuals with ease. The only drawback is its startup time and their acceptance of a population that was raised in a grassworshipping culture that successfully destroyed every other competing culture in its path by applying ruthless violence. The same violence that it uses to make its population comply with all its absurdities. Realize this, go vegan, eat from trees.

  13. @a My issues are not with the World Watch Institute, which makes it clear on their blog entry for the Goodland and Anhang article that “Opinions expressed in World Watch are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Worldwatch Institute.” [1] I’m sorry that you think that countering misinformation is “trolling.” I’ve carefully documented all supporting documentation for my claims on my website, for anyone that is interested. Point #2 above is acknowledged explicitly by the authors in the original study, with no explanation for why they do not undertake a trivial calculation.[2]

    [1] http://blogs.worldwatch.org/revolt/livestock/

    [2] pg. 14 of http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf

  14. @Ricardo Coelho – Thanks for this comment. I agree with you that animal suffering is an overwhelming argument to go vegan. The book “Eating Animals” was one of the triggers for me.

    I agree with you completely that to address climate change we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Hence these two sentences in my post:

    Of course, I’m not arguing for reductions in emissions from livestock so that we can continue to burn fossil fuels. To address climate change we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, as well as reducing emissions from cow farts (and deforestation).

    So, I think we agree. We should leave fossil fuels in the ground. And avoid meat and dairy products.

  15. The evidence is staggering, overwhelming and covers many facets of our human ecology in favor of a vegan human ecology. There is nothing any of us can do that will have a greater influence over ecosystems is to go vegan and stop overpopulation. Here is a good site relating to the former. It is not vegan-biased and instead is based on global institutions and scientific data: http://www.globalagriculture.org/report-topics/meat-and-animal-feed.html.

    If the slaughter of billions of sentient beings does not affect our sense of purpose and worldview(s), the loss of ecosystems and biodiversity then perhaps self-interest will shine a light on where our individual power lies. There’s more at http://www.greenvegans.org and http://www.thisishopethebook.com. Also, check out the unassuming for right-on documentary “Cowspiracy”. Good luck to everyone.

  16. Chris, good for you on making the change in your life. Every person makes a difference. If more people like you spread this message then others may begin to realize that being a vegan is the ethical, logical and socially responsible choice. What’s missing in this world is empathy – not just for the animals but also for other humans that are affected by daily choices we make about what is on our plates.

  17. I have been vegan for more than 25 years and have never regretted it. There are more and more reasons coming to light every day to leave animals and animal products out of your life.

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